Friday, November 9, 2007

BEST OF: Nutcracker redux

Imagine 9-year-old and a 79-year-old celebrating their birthdays together by seeing a ballet on stage, each for the very first time.

Husband Richard’s birthday is the week before Christmas. Our granddaughter Caitlyn’s birthday is in September. Last year, she told us that rather than getting toys or trinkets for her ninth birthday, she’d much rather see “The Nutcracker” as her birthday gift.

We suspected more than a little parental influence in her decision, but Cait was obviously delighted by the prospect of seeing the dance in person, so we were pleased to comply.

She lives with her mom and sister in a small town northeast of Sacramento. So the obvious, easy solution would have been to take Grandpa and his girl to see the ballet corps in the state’s capital.

Tanners never do easy.

Instead, we decided to host Cait for a holiday weekend in San Francisco and take her to an all-new production of the famed dance at the San Francisco Ballet.

If we could get tickets. Big if.

By a fluke of timing, Richard and I were in The City on the day tickets went on sale. We’d heard it’s always a mob scene, so to make sure we snagged good seats, we headed out early that morning to stand in line at the Opera House.

We arrived about an hour before ticket sales began and were startled when there was no line of potential buyers.

Maybe they forgot? Not likely. Hmmmm.

We studied the lovely old building until a kindly soul opened up the front doors and let us in, about 15 minutes before ticket sales were to begin.

Then we saw it — a sign at the ticket window itself (which we hadn’t been able to see from outside) informing us that all sales would be by phone or over the Internet, and the ballet office itself wouldn’t open for another month.

Well, phoo. So that’s why nobody else was there. They obviously knew. We didn’t. Once again, I felt like the outsider dummy kid at the new school.

And we still had to get tickets, somehow. We’d promised.

Unfortunately, time was racing by and my cell phone wasn’t working well (the downtown buildings are too high and block reception, I guess. It’s almost as bad as trying to call from Cambria!)

Every time I actually got past the busy signal to the ballet-ticket order line itself, the signal would fade and I’d get disconnected.

It was 10:30, and I know those gusty winds I felt were from all the good tickets flying out to all those other people who’d known we couldn’t buy them at the window.

Our options were running out. There are no pay phones any more (casualty of all those cell phones that don’t work). It would have taken us another half hour to get to the hotel for internet sales.

By then, if we could have gotten tickets at all, I was sure we’d have been banished to the hall’s cheap seats, up in the cashew gallery (even further up than the peanut gallery).

Finally and desperately, I called a dear friend at work, begging and pleading. Bless her soul, Linda took time on a hugely busy morning and snagged us seats in the front row of the first balcony. Whew!

On ballet day, a beside-herself-with-excitement Cait dolled up in velvet and chiffon headed for the Opera House. As we all walked through the doors, a light sprinkling of man-made snow drifted down in wisps at the doorway. Magic!

Helgi Tomasson’s newly revised production of “The Nutcracker Suite” had fresh choreography, costumes of unusual colors and stage sets depicting San Francisco’s “Painted Ladies” Victorian houses, rather than London.

Cait was enchanted by the swirling dance, the costumes and the joy of watching it all through a tiny pair of opera glasses. Most of all, she loved a charming young Clara, who captured hearts and wove magic spells. For those few moments, children in the audience could imagine they were just like her.

Richard marveled at the athletic feats, the huge talents and the beauty of the ballet. “Don’t they understand the concept of gravity?” he mused.

And there were extra benefits for a nearly deaf hearing-aid wearer who quickly figured out the music-only language of ballet. With a big grin, he said, “I certainly know the melodies already, and I didn’t have to strain to hear the dialogue.”

What a joy it was to provide such memories for birthday gifts that needed no shiny box or big bows.

There’s only one downside — how will we top it this year?

This column ran in The Cambrian on Nov. 10, 2005. Continuing the tradition, we'll take Caitlyn, younger sister Alyssa and their mom to see the same ballet in December. It will be a first-time treat for Lyssie, too.

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